The Jitterati gist
Grant Buist says he’s grateful a comic strip doesn’t require too much space.
Not so his Victoria University library mural. It’s 23 metres long and made up of 18 panels, each the size of a door. He painted it in 1998 and it was admired by thousands of students until just recently, when the library decided on a makeover and the mural needed to go.
“So I get this call and they tell me I’d better come and collect it,” Buist says.
And he did. In a wheelborrow. It took him a week, trudging backwards and forwards several times a day between the university and his Kelburn home.
“People were curious. As I carted these giant panels in my tiny wheelbarrow they kept stopping me wanting to know what I was doing.”
The mural’s now in Buist’s garage awaiting a new home, and there is interest from a local museum. He says it’s his biggest work, but I’m not so sure. I worked it out and while you might carry it in one wheelbarrow ten years of Jitterati strips laid end to end would stretch the height of the Majestic Tower.
But of course Jitterati doesn’t appear as a physical object until it’s actually printed in Capital Times.
“ It’s completely digital now,” Buist says. “No paper is used in the manufacturing of this comic strip.”
In the beginning everything was drawn by hand. So where did it all start?
“I wanted to attempt a Wellington based cartoon strip. It had to be simple, set it in Wellington cafes with just three characters catching up for a coffee and a chat about topical Wellington stuff.”
It was the 90s and Buist was already producing Brunswick which appeared in almost all New Zealand student newspapers from 1993 to 2003 and spawned a series of short films and a musical. He began sending one panel cartoons to Capital Times, many published in a column called Little Black Box. Then he did his first Jitterati. It appeared on July 10, 2002.
“I’ve stuck with the same characters ever since. Tony is based on an actor I met doing Summer Shakespeare. Jamie is the most opinionated. Debbie, she’s not the dumb blond, but she likes saying stuff to annoy. She’s the art consumer of Wellington, and she earns the most.”
For Buist the out and about part of the job is getting new cafe backgrounds for his strip. He’s used to the occasional suspicious look from latte drinkers as he takes photographs of cafe walls. He’s also often seen out with fellow Capital Times columnist Martin Doyle sketching various aspects of Wellington life.
Buist’s story line ideas come from reading lots of news the night before deadline.
“Impending deadlines are fantastic. I read whatever I can, or I might hear something. It has to be topical Wellington stuff and I try and write about something that’s happening on the day it comes out.”
The actual process of creation is not an easy one for Buist. A single strip can take more than a day to complete, and he’s often up until three in the morning finishing it in time for morning deadline.
“I can’t sit down and concentrate on it for very long. I have to go back to it so it can take all day.”
Buist says it hasn’t always been so difficult. He once aspired to be a graphic designer and studied four years at Massey’s design school. A stint as graphic designer for Salient, however, changed his life.
“Working at Salient wrecked my life. I was working 80 hours a week and after six months I went to the doctor and he told me I could be dead in a month if I didn’t slow down.”
That was five years ago and Buist still suffers from what he admits to have been a mental break down.
“It’s been extremely tough since then. I just can’t concentrate on things for very long and it requires a huge effort to do day to day activities. I’ve had to reduce my expectations in life.”
Buist says Jitterati has kept him focused during the darker times. He’s also worked on other things - an animated film on You Tube, a graphic novel he’s been writing since the first Jitterati appeared, and next year he’s taking on a residency with the Museum of Wellington City and Sea on a project presenting Wellington history in a cartoon form.
And the future looks bright for Jitterati. The strip was compiled into a book in 2009 and another one is planned. It’s also collected by the Alexander Turnbull Library which prizes it as an important social commentary, by Victoria University as part of its observation of bilingual change, and has been printed in various books and social histories.
And Buist has no plans to end of the saga of Jamiee, Debbie and Tony any time soon.
“No I’m sticking with it. I guess if they start having kids that will be the end of it.”